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Forest Service rolls out online wildfire notification tool

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Wildfires Near Me

A screenshot of the Forest Service's new Wildfires Near Me website. The online tool allows users to get real-time updates about wildfires in their area. 

Wondering if that smoke in the air is cause for concern? Or just want to make sure you’re the first to know if flames do break out near your home?

Last week the Forest Service debuted a new website where residents can input their location and automatically receive real-time notifications about wildfires that break out in their area.

Then, the tool allows the user to follow any fire that has started within their area of interest, providing the option of text and email updates.

“The overall idea was to give people a source of data when a fire is in your back yard,” said Ben Butler, a GIS specialist with the Forest Service who created the tool. “We wanted to expose the data we have.”

While information about bigger fires tends to be plentiful, the application aims to provide information within the first 24 hours of a fire start, which is usually when such updates are hard to find. 

After signing up for the online tool, a user can choose multiple areas of interest and can monitor fires as far as 20 miles away. When a user follows a fire, they can view information like the GIS coordinates of the fire start, cause, acreage and status — new, emerging, contained or controlled. Even more information becomes available if a fire gets larger, Butler said.

The app takes into account fires reported by official dispatch systems as well as Twitter posts about a fire. It also has the capability for people to post comments about a fire directly to Facebook or Twitter that will be seen by other users.

The idea from the beginning was to build a tool for public consumption to help make people more situationally aware, Butler said. The tool is unique in mining information that isn’t easily accessible to the public and then delivering it directly to people’s phones and computers, he said.

If people see a wildfire pop up near them, Butler advised monitoring the application but also turning to local news sources or other authorities to get more information about the fire.

The tool does not monitor prescribed fires and doesn’t have the capability to determine whether the fire is being managed by firefighters for the benefit of the forest, Butler said.

Throughout this fire season, the Forest Service will monitor people’s use of Wildfires Near Me with a goal of gauging whether such a tool should be more fully developed with a longer-term outlook, Butler said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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